Germany called for the banning of uranium shells yesterday as several European countries ordered health checks for soldiers who served in the Balkans, while Nato and the EU scheduled urgent meetings to discuss the risks.
Although the United States continued to deny its armour-piercing shells made out of depleted uranium posed a threat, several Nato allies came close to accusing Washington of lying. "I have a healthy scepticism about munitions that can damage our own troops when they are fired," said the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder. "I don't consider it right to use such munitions."
Portugal, in equally sceptical mood, is sending three ministers to Kosovo today to investigate for themselves the possible effects of depleted uranium. "We want our own information based on our own tests," said António Guterres, the Prime Minister, clearly mistrustful of Nato reassurances. "It's the best guarantee of getting to the truth."
The ministerial mission backs up a Portuguese scientific team sent to Klina, near Kosovo, at the weekend to examine the ground with Geiger counters for radiation. The initiative follows mounting public concern over "Balkan syndrome", a form of leukaemia some experts fear is caused by radioactive fall-out.
Portugal began testing 10,000 soldiers yesterday who served in the Balkans, acting on reports that five soldiers have suffered ill effects and two have died. Spain also opened a Defence Ministry hotline to handle concerns from Spanish soldiers, while still insisting that cases of cancer detected in those stationed in the Balkans were due to "natural causes" and were no higher than average.
Three medical specialists began staffing Spain's telephone hotline in a special Defence Ministry department set up to examine cases of soldiers who think they may be affected, but the number was increased to 12 amid the pressure of calls. Spain acknowledges three cancer-related deaths among Balkan veterans. But the veterans' pressure group, Soldiers' Defence Bureau, said that four had died, four were ill and 12 cases needed further investigation. The Spanish Red Cross said it was submitting its 58 members who had served in the Balkans to health checks as a precaution.
US jets fired 31,000 depleted uranium shells during the Kosovo conflict, and another 10,000 rounds during peace-keeping work in Bosnia. They are used for piercing armour, releasing upon impact a dust of uranium oxide, which is highly toxic as well as radioactive.
Six Italian soldiers have died from leukemia since returning from the Balkans, sparking anational outcry against the use of depleted uranium in tank-busting ammunition. Belgium and Greece have pressed for a debate on depleted uranium at today's EU meeting, and the European Commission is examining whether it has the power to act. But the US and Britain are resisting demands for a formal inquiry, arguing that there is no evidence of health problems connected with the use of depleted uranium.
Italy was the first Nato member to call for a full investigation of the weapon. Germany has until now denied any direct link between leukaemia and the depleted uranium shells. A German NCO diagnosed with the disease had served in Mostar during the Bosnian conflict, but the Berlin authorities insist that he could not have come into contact with the shells there.
But German trust in American words appears shaken. "We want a complete examination of where these munitions have been used and with what consequences," Mr Schröder said, after meeting Goran Persson, Sweden's Prime Minister. "Of course we also want to know if there are connections between cases of illness and the use of these weapons."
An international team of experts has already visited some of the sites in Kosovo, and has found higher than normal radiation levels. The full results of their study will not be completed until March.
Russia, which has 3,000 peace-keeping troops in Kosovo and 1,000 in Bosnia, wants the UN involved. "The main thing is to have independent, objective checks at the level of experts of the United Nations and other specialist bodies the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organisation," said Igor Ivanov, the Russian Foreign Minister.
Nato's use of depleted uranium in Kosovo and Bosnia faces fresh scrutiny today when the alliance and the EU hold separate talks on the "Balkan syndrome". Sweden, which holds the presidency of the EU, said it has put the issue on the agenda of today's political and security committee, and Italy will raise the matter at the alliance's political committee.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.